McNeil had been caught in the middle of that war. His property is an ideal target for surreptitious night tagging because it's visible from the Fruitvale BART station — prime real estate for a graffiti artist who wants his tags to be seen by as many people as possible. "The streets are free art galleries," Davalos says. "You don't have to pay to get in."

So when McNeil's building started to get bombarded by graffiti a few years ago, he wasn't able to buff the tags out at the rate that they appeared. Soon they wrapped around all sides of the building. McNeil wasn't perturbed about the graffiti because he was too busy with his business, but when Gallo's office contacted him asking if his building could serve in the graffiti abatement pilot program, he agreed. While Keep Oakland Beautiful painted over the tags during the summer, McNeil had to keep a can of gray paint in the garage to combat the fresh tags, which would often appear within 48 hours.

The mural taking shape on McNeil's building is an amalgam of pictographs, ranging from tribal drawings of buffalo to abstract symbols. Set against a bright orange and red background, the painting represents the inside of a cave. To honor the history of the region, McNeil wanted a mural that looked more like a Native American painting than a traditional mural. On the side of the building the mural hasn't yet reached, the palimpsests of tags faintly peek through layers of gray paint. McNeil brings the painters tacos from a nearby food truck during their lunch break. He thinks that the restorative justice program is a good idea.

Francisco Aquino starting doing graffiti in San Francisco in 1983 when he was 12 years old. He began painting murals with Street SmARTs when the organization began in 2009. Aquino's murals can be found throughout San Francisco in the Mission and Chinatown.
Mike Koozmin
Francisco Aquino starting doing graffiti in San Francisco in 1983 when he was 12 years old. He began painting murals with Street SmARTs when the organization began in 2009. Aquino's murals can be found throughout San Francisco in the Mission and Chinatown.
Juan Pardo

"We have too many people in jail, and they're using their skills to do something creative," he says. But he admits that only time will tell if the project will actually keep graffiti off the wall. Certainly, the young artists aren't severing ties to their past completely. While admiring the work of the artists, McNeil points out one figure that the teens sneaked onto the wall: an orange stickman aiming a spray can.


The uncomfortable truth about the relationship between graffiti and more accepted forms of art is that many artists pass through one to reach the other. As a pioneer of the street art community in San Francisco, Francisco Aquino, a muralist commissioned by Street SmARTs, has been on both sides of the law over the last 30 years.

When Aquino was 12 years old, a friend showed him pictures of graffiti in New York. He loved it. "Graffiti art is one of the last uncensored tools that we have in this community," says Aquino, now 43. "You can take your tag and write whatever it is you want to write about." He got into tagging, but started painting murals in 1983. He wanted to explore different art forms, but also to incorporate the community he had been putting his name on for years.

Aquino has been in the graffiti scene for decades, and has earned the respect of other taggers as well as the larger community — even though he started out writing his graffiti monker, Twick, on buses and other public places. After painting murals for nearly 20 years and by showing his portfolios to different store owners, Aquino received a commission to paint his first mural in 2001. Soon he was painting murals throughout the city, becoming one of the first to bring street art to the mainstream in San Francisco. His works, which hearken to his graffiti past with bright color and bold linework, can be found throughout the Mission and Chinatown.

Aquino became involved in Street SmARTs when it started in 2009. His first assignment was to paint a mural on a building at 23rd and Capp streets — at that time, the most vandalized building in the Mission. It was an ongoing battle between the graffiti artists and the property owner who couldn't compete with the perpetual defacement of his building. Aquino intended the piece to honor the local street merchants. As a lifelong resident of the Mission, Aquino was inspired by the beauty and everyday struggles of people in the neighborhood, and reflected them in vibrant paintings that depicted elements of the wide variety of local cultures, including Aztec and Chinese.

Although San Francisco and Oakland are embracing street art to deter graffiti, Aquino says that young graffiti writers have been destroying murals in the city by tagging them over the past six months, which he feels is a huge cultural loss for the community. When Aquino sees young taggers on the street, he often warns them of the risks of tagging illegally on buildings.

"Yes, you get a rush from writing your name, tagging and destroying property, but at the same time, if you get caught you're going to end up going to jail," he says. He tries to encourage young artists to use the abilities they've harnessed through graffiti as a springboard for other activities, like graphic design or printing T-shirts. But Aquino maintains a respect for graffiti; it's how he began his career.

Which is only natural. The weird tension between graffiti and street art is that they're still mostly inseparable. Artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Aquino leave their designs on well-trafficked walls, T-shirts, or even presidential campaign posters. But an embrace of the art means a grudging acceptance of the tagging culture from which it came. Many of the artists have crossed a threshold into respectability, but they had to start somewhere — and that means that once upon a time there was a blank wall and a can of spray paint.

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3 comments
Anita Posey
Anita Posey

Our building just got MAJOR graffiti’d. It really really sucks that other people’s property isn’t respected. Now we are responsible for hundreds of dollars to clean it up or the city will fine us. Thanks jerks!

james
james

As a homeless tent dweller who recently had his tent tagged by a spray can idiot, I do not view tagging as a valid art form. It is vandalism without any artistic merit and those who engage in such activities should be punished rather than praised.

 
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